No Place Like Home for Humanitarian Harper

According to a Jan. 27 report from the Edmonton Journal,

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this week that his government would make the issue of maternal and infant health in developing countries a priority as Canada prepares to host the G8 economies meeting this summer.

And as the PM considers how his government might help other countries improve the health prospects of their infants, it seems worthwhile to take a look at how well Canada does in its own backyard.

Take the rate of infant mortality, a major indicator of well-being for any country, “developed” or otherwise. That’s the rate at which children die within the first year of life.

The most recent StatsCan data I could find (2006) indicated an overall Canadian infant mortality rate of 5 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Dig a little deeper, though, and one finds a different picture for different populations, namely, First Nations and Inuit infants. According to the 2009 study, Indigenous Children’s Health Report: Health Assessment in Action, among certain First Nations populations (essentially those based on-reserve), infant mortality is “nearly twice the rate in the general Canadian population.” Among Inuit, “the infant mortality rate [IMR] is four times higher.”

Funded by Health Canada, the four country study was released last March, reported the Toronto Star.

Looking at another international set of comparative stats from no less than the CIA, these IMRs would, among 224 countries listed, see First Nations and Inuit populations rank as follows (all figures estimated):

1. > ANGOLA: 182.21 deaths/1,000 births
(in this case, first is worst: they have
the planet’s highest infant mortality rate)

105. > INUIT: 20.0 deaths/1,000 births

154. > FIRST NATIONS: 10.0 deaths/1,000 births

190. > CANADA: 5.04 deaths/1,000 births

224. > SINGAPORE: 2.31 deaths/1,000 births
(the best IMR of all 224 countries listed)

I must qualify the way I have ‘mashed up’ these statistics.

One, the Indigenous Children’s Health report uses data prior to 2006, whereas the CIA report is for 2009, so things may have changed in the intervening three years (but not necessarily in a positive direction, a point I’ll get to presently).

Two, although infant mortality data are not collected perfectly or uniformly anywhere in the world, with Aboriginal peoples in Canada the problem isn’t so much inconsistent data collection as non-existent: for example, there is still “no specific infant mortality data for the Metis” available in Canada, said one of the study’s co-editors, Dr. Janet Smylie.

In fact, the study quotes The Joint Working Group on First Nations, Inuit and Métis Infant Mortality Data in noting

that high quality infant mortality rates are currently only available for regional subgroups of the First Nations and Inuit population in Canada … these rates do not exist at a national level.

The report goes on to elaborate:

instances of substandard data collection sources and methods… have resulted in inaccurate statistics. For example, under reporting of First Nations infant mortality has recently been identified at national and provincial levels.

So those double and quadruple Aboriginal infant mortality rates might actually represent under-reporting? At the moment, all we can do is raise the question and hope the reporting is off in the other direction.

A question begetting another: given this track record vis-a-vis indigenous peoples within its own borders, how should we then look upon Canada’s offer to export such ‘humanitarian’ attention?

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